Cos we can

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 March, 2006, 12:00am

AGAINST THE SWEEPING backdrop of a concrete jungle stands a lone young man dangerously close to the edge of a rooftop, his black cloak blowing in the pollution and a scythe in hand, waiting to strike.

Just another anime cartoon? No, it's a scene from a city near you and it's all very real. Well, up to a point.

The image, City Watcher, is part of a series by Guangzhou artist Cao Fei on show at Para/Site Art Space.

The video and installation project is based on a Japanese-based hobby called cosplay, short for 'costume and play'. It attracts mainly young people, who dress up as their favourite manga or anime characters. Many make their own costumes and accessories, and hardcore fans take part in cosplay contests at comic festivals.

Cao's COSplayers project features about a dozen players from her home town. In their fancy gear, they pose in real-life settings. In one scene, a girl in a purple ninja costume is sitting at home on an old-style wood chair next to her father, who's too busy reading his paper to pay her any attention. In another, two cosplayers sporting long white and blue hair with matching costumes are on the move. But instead of flying or riding a fancy robot, as their characters would, the pair are riding the underground.

Cao, 27, came up with the topic of cosplay when working on Steps to Heaven, a project for the 2004 Shanghai Biennial. It brought together a small group of artists who were interested in the common theme of desire in an urban context.

'I wanted to describe the surreal desire flying over the city and cosplay seems to be the perfect subject for it,' she says.

'Under the big picture of over-development in China, I noticed how society has left human beings along the way and ignored the feelings of young people. I put cosplayers in a big city to show how this extremely large space - namely China - ignores small voices and creates loneliness.'

Cao says that as young people indulge much of their time playing computer games, they begin to drift away from reality - and parents who don't understand them. 'Cosplay seems to liberate them,' she says. 'Because they're not satisfied with their own identities, they spend a lot of money on cosplay because it allows them to change their own roles.'

It may be a game but they take it seriously, says Cao. 'They only pick the anime characters they like most. Everyone's costume is their own. It can't be shared. When you look them in the eyes, you see confidence and how they've turned into that character - with the right pose and personality. Sometimes, even after they've taken off their costumes, they still carry that personality with them.'

Nonetheless, Cao says many cosplayers are unhappy. 'They can be a hero in the cosplay world, but at the end of the day, they feel lost because there's no change in their status in reality and they remain isolated.'

Some would prefer to spend more of their time in cosplay. 'They hope to have a relationship with reality although they have escaped from it through cosplay in the first place,' Cao says. 'From there, some of them started to turn it into a career and opened shops selling costumes in order to re-link themselves to reality.'

Modern society is a recurring theme in Cao's works. Besides COSplayers - which has been shown in Fukuoka and New York - she has videotaped Burberry-clad, white-collar workers acting like dogs in Rabid Dogs to symbolise how submissive people are prepared to be in modern life. 'I'm not a politician and I'm not trying to make a difference,' she says. 'I use my work to express my feelings - artworks can't change reality, but at least it can represent thoughts.'

Cao graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, majoring in theatre, and has been using video as the main medium for her works. 'I'm using video because it's like a sugar-coated bomb,' she says. 'It can attract a bigger audience, which allows me to spread my message.'

Cao's exhibitions have attracted plenty of overseas attention. 'The west knows about China through their media, but my works provide them a more realistic reality,' she says. 'This sounds strange, but the fact is they might have a false impression of what China is.'

Cao was born and raised in Guangzhou. Her parents are artists. Her father, Cao Chong-en, is a sculptor whose recent works include the Bruce Lee statue at the Avenue of Stars in Tsim Sha Tsui. In Father, she videotaped him while he sculpted a statue of Deng Xiaoping.

'My father and I are evidence of how mainland artists have changed,' she says. 'He never understands what I do, but it's not really a problem.'

COSplayers, Para/Site Art Space, Sheung Wan, Wed-Sun, noon-7pm. Inquiries: 2517 4620. Ends Apr 9